Click for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Forecast



Speaking Out: Debating Grad Unionization


It would be entertaining, at the very least, to hear a debate on the unionization of graduate students which was between members of the university community who are in the top quintile of our economic spectrum and who feel unionization is a good and reasonable idea versus members in the bottom quintile who feel it is a corruption of the university and of its principles, if such creatures were to be found. I have heard this issue discussed for some time now, and haven't heard anything very specific coming from the university in terms of how exactly a union would negatively impact the education these students receive. The expressed fear that if grad students were to have dental coverage it would mean that a professor would have to reorganize his or her curriculum in such and such a way does not reflect the kind of critical thinking skills the university is proud of fostering. The stereotypical image of the grad student with the unraveling sweater and threadbare jeans need not have bad teeth as well to complete the cartoon. There seems to be some vague suggestion that enabling a grad student to upgrade from Ragu to a schmancier jar of spaghetti sauce would somehow impede the rigorous ingestion of Schopenhauer and Heisenberg.

There are those who have felt that a university led by a president who is paid such a staggering salary might, under certain circumstances, put the interests of the bottom line ahead of the interests of "free inquiry and creativity." I trust that those people have been needlessly alarmed, and that this current panic is similarly unfounded.

It may well be that since the university is in the process of scaling down its medical coverage to its current employees, grad students will have a hard time increasing these benefits substantially. And as Ms. Rodin points out, pursuing a graduate degree is different from applying for a job in the outside world. Shabbier treatment and longer hours for less pay are and have been accepted by grad students for as long as anyone can remember. And these are likely to continue to some degree, even with a union.

Bear in mind that these are people who have already worked hard and paid dearly in many cases for their undergraduate degrees. Their expertise has already earned them the right and responsibility of instilling in the undergraduate population at Penn all the academic virtues referred to in Ms. Rodin's letter. But there are limits, and many people seem to feel those limits have been reached. And if the very threat of unionization can cause the university to revamp its health care benefits to grad students, how much more would a union itself insure such responsiveness?


-- Andy Bresnan
Marking Clerk, Biddle Law Library

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Eds.


  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 18, January 21, 2003